DUBLIN — From the pews and pulpits, Ireland’s Catholics are demanding that the Vatican finally come clean on its role in covering up child abuse.
It’s a revolution of sorts in Ireland, a nation founded on a pillar of devotion to Roman Catholicism, where many now question the church’s role in a rapidly changing society.
For decades, Irish leaders let archbishops vet proposed laws, declared they were Catholics first and Irishmen second, and saw crossing the church as a surefire way to lose office.
The Irish are broadly lauding last week’s thunderbolt from Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who denounced the Vatican’s role in the past 17 years of abuse scandals. He accused the Holy See of downplaying “the rape and torture of children” and hiding behind its status as a sovereign state with its own secrecy-obsessed canon laws.
Astonished cabbies pulled off the road to watch the unprecedented speech on their smartphones. Victims of clerical sexual abuse, who have spent two decades trying to be heard and believed, cheered a day they thought would never come.
“It’s a landmark speech in emphasizing that Ireland’s historic deference to the Vatican, and to the Catholic Church generally, is over,” said Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin.
Even Ireland’s priests, dismayed by their church leadership, voiced support for Mr. Kenny’s attack on the Vatican.
“The prime minister is a practicing Catholic and has a love for the Christian faith. He’s given a powerful voice to what we’ve all been thinking,” said the Rev. Tony Flannery, a leader of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland.
“The vast majority of ordinary priests feel incredibly frustrated and annoyed that the Vatican never admits any wrongdoing, is not open to dialogue, and permits this cloud to hang over all our heads. It’s unfair.”
The rising church-state conflict in Ireland reflects a generation of dynamic economic and social change in this country of 4.5 million, more than 85 percent of whom identify themselves as Catholic on the census — but fewer than half of them attend weekly Mass today.
The decline in Catholic observance has shadowed Ireland’s first experience of prosperity during the Celtic Tiger boom of 1994-2007 and its related surge in immigration and cosmopolitan attitudes.
Today’s Ireland has legalized divorce and gay partnerships, with abortion looming as the next battleground.
Ireland’s rapid descent to the brink of bankruptcy since 2008 has radically altered the political landscape to the Vatican’s disadvantage. Mr. Kenny, leader of Ireland’s law-and-order party Fine Gael, was swept to power earlier this year alongside the left-wing and anticlerical Labor Party.
Suffering a historic defeat was Fianna Fail, a party that made Catholicism a core part of its identity. Its former leader, Bertie Ahern, famously addressed the parliament each Ash Wednesday with his forehead blackened — a sign he had just come from Mass.
Mr. Ahern’s successor, Brian Cowen, defended the Vatican’s refusal to cooperate with Irish child-abuse inquiries.
Yet even the most devoted have found their faith tested by those investigations into the church’s concealment of child abuse by priests, nuns and other officials.
Judge-led investigations have produced four mammoth reports since 2005 documenting how bishops shuttled known pedophiles throughout Ireland and to unwitting parishes in the United States and Australia.
They detailed how tens of thousands of children suffered wide-ranging abuses in workhouse-style residential schools, and how leaders of the largest diocese in Dublin didn’t tell police of any crimes until forced by the weight of lawsuits in the mid-1990s.
The latest investigation, into the County Cork diocese of Cloyne, was published earlier this month. It found that officials there were shielding suspected pedophiles from the law until 2008.
That is 12 years after the Irish church unveiled a new policy requiring the mandatory reporting of all suspected crimes to police, and seven years after Pope Benedict XVI — then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and head of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — ordered bishops worldwide to report all abuse cases to him, too.
However, the Cloyne report highlighted a 1997 letter from the Vatican to Irish bishops warning them that their new crime-reporting policy undermined canon law and had not won the Holy See’s approval.
For the first time, an Irish fact-finding inquiry found the Vatican culpable in promoting the culture of cover-up.
On Thursday, the Vatican’s spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said in response to Mr. Kenny’s speech that the Holy See will respond “when opportune to the demands of the Irish government” following the Cloyne probe.
Father Lombardi expressed hope the debate on the scandals will play out “objectively” and restore a climate of trust in the church and Irish society.
But the wounds run deep.
Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the church’s leading voice calling for honesty, went on Ireland’s state RTE television to declare, teary-eyed, that honest priests were being verbally assaulted by the public because of their leaders’ continuing failure to admit the truth.
“I find myself asking today, ‘Can I be proud of the church that I’m a leader of?’ I have to be ashamed of this,” said Archbishop Martin, who has found himself at odds with other bishops and the Vatican about his open approach.
The archbishop noted that he had provided state investigators the Dublin Archdiocese’s secret files on abuse complaints — despite a lawsuit from his predecessor, Cardinal Desmond Connell, seeking to keep them locked away — and urged other dioceses to do the same.
He described as “a cabal” those church leaders in the Vatican and Ireland who conspired to ignore both the pope’s and the Irish government’s calls for pedophiles to be identified.
When asked if he could count on fellow Irish bishops to protect children from abuse now, Archbishop Martin said, “I hope so,” but questioned whether investigators would get at the truth unless granted greater powers.
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